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Women's Medical was quiet, for the Senior Consulting Physician's round had just begun. Dr Thackery was already at the first bed; a large man and tall, with lint-fair hair thickly sprinkled with grey, and blue heavy-lidded eyes. Oblivious of the admiring gaze of his patients fastened upon his handsome head, he bent over the elderly woman he was examining, his own gaze fixed on the wall behind her bed while he prodded gently.
Presently he said over his shoulder: 'Sister, I think we'll have another X-ray.' He had a deep deliberate voice, and his newly appointed House Physician drew in her breath at the sound of it and closed her eyes in a lovesick fashion. Clotilde handed over the appropriate form and gave her a quick amused glance as she did so. Everyone— that was, everyone female fell for Dr Thackery; such a silly waste of time too, because he was quite oblivious of their adoring looks. She had worked for him for three years now and never once had he cast an eye, even faintly interested, at any one of the nurses, sisters or women doctors working at St Alma's. He wasn't married, although he had been seen on numerous occasions with a variety of girls—and good luck to him, mused Clotilde, briskly handing the signed form to Dr Evans, who received it as though it were a gift from heaven, blushing heavily. He was nice, kind and thoughtful and almost annoyingly placid, although she had upon occasion felt acute pity for whoever he was hauling over the coals in that calm courteous voice, chilly with icy displeasure. But never with her; they enjoyed a pleasant relationship, a detached friendliness which was quite impersonal. Away from the ward she knew nothing about him, nor was she curious, and if he was to have called her Clotilde instead of Sister Collins she would have been dumbstruck. That he mostly looked at her as though he didn't see her properly didn't vex her in the least; she was a pretty girl with dark thickly fringed eyes, a straight nose and a wide curving mouth and hair as dark as her eyes, inclined to curl and which she screwed into a bun on top of her head, adding another inch or two to her tall and splendid figure. Possessed of these attributes, she had never lacked attention from men, and now that she and Bruce were engaged, she had little interest in anyone else.
Dr Thackery made his leisurely way to the next bed and she went with him, notes ready to hand, her mind now wholly on her work; which was more than could be said for Dr Evans, or, for that matter, his patient.
Miss Knapp was fiftyish, thin, refined and with a tongue as sharp as her equally sharp nose. But during Dr Thackery's round the sharpness was hidden under a die-away behaviour calculated to attract his sympathy.
Only it didn't. His manner towards her couldn't be faulted; Clotilde had to admit that his bedside manner was flawless, he had examined her, asked a few pertinent questions, assured her that she would be going home within a few days, and passed on to the next bed before she could squeeze out a single tear of self-pity.
A different kettle of fish here. Old Mrs Perch lay quietly, seldom speaking, and then only to thank someone for whatever they had done for her. Leukaemia, held at bay by Dr Thackery for hard fought months, was at last catching up with her; she knew it and so did he, but he sat on the edge of the bed, engaging her in cheerful talk between his questions, and was answered with equal cheerfulness. 'And this dear girl,' whispered Mrs Perch, nodding at Clotilde, 'always there when she's wanted—you have no idea what a treasure she is, Doctor.'
He dropped the lids over his eyes. 'Oh, but indeed I have, Mrs Perch. Sister Collins is my right hand, although I shall have to find myself another one when she marries.'
Mrs Perch chuckled, it sounded like paper rustling. 'There'll be plenty wanting to be that; you'll be able to take your pick, Doctor.' She glanced at Clotilde. 'I doubt you'll find her equal.'
'I doubt it too, Mrs Perch. And now I must bother you for a moment while Dr Evans takes some blood.'
He went to the end of the bed, listening to what his registrar, Jeff Saunders, had to say, half turned away from his patient. Which didn't prevent him seeing how Dr Evans fumbled so clumsily with the syringe that Clotilde took it gently from her, took the required amount of blood without fuss and handed it wordlessly back. He said nothing; it wasn't the first time Clotilde had given a helping hand. He stood impassively while Dr Evans transferred the blood to a test tube and then went back to his patient to bid her goodbye.
He was not to be hurried; Clotilde knew better than that. It was more than an hour by the time they had completed the round, and even then he paused at the end of the ward to discuss something with his Registrar. Clotilde thought longingly of her coffee and heaved a sigh of relief when he was at last finished and they could go to her office. The little party broke up, the social worker to go to her office, the radiographer to the X-ray room, Staff Nurse Wood to see that the ward was tidied and the patients comfortable and to send the nurses to their coffee, and Dr Thackery, Jeff Saunders and Dr Evans crowded into Clotilde's office where she dispensed coffee and biscuits, offered bits of information when asked for them and collected the pile of forms Dr Thackery had signed. And all the while she listened carefully to his instructions; he never gave her time to write them down. She said: 'Yes, sir,' at intervals and relied on her excellent memory.
Finally he had finished. The small party left her office, crossed the landing and were ushered out into the wide corridor connecting the men's and women's medical blocks. Clotilde stood and watched them go, Dr Thackery towering over his companions, his head a little bent, deep in thought. He really needs a wife, thought Clotilde, then wondered why on earth she had thought that.
She spent the next hour with Sally Wood, making notes, seeing that the right forms went to the right departments, making sure that the instructions she had received were passed on, and by the time that was done the patients' dinners had arrived and they both went into the ward and served the complicated diets suitable for ulcers, heart failures, kidney disease and diabetes, and that done, Clotilde left Sally to dish out the puddings while she went from bed to bed, making sure that the ladies under her care were eating their dinners, listening patiently to complaints, encouraging poor appetites, laughing at the jokes some of the convalescent ladies were making in their cheerful Cockney voices.
She went to her own dinner then, with two of the student nurses, leaving Sally and a second-year nurse to begin the business of settling everyone for their nap. But she didn't go straight to the dining room. Bruce would be in the entrance hall waiting for her. He was on the surgical side, one of Sir Oswald Jenkins' team, already marked out as a promising surgeon. She started down the last of the stairs and saw him standing with his back to her, talking to Sir Oswald. He was a little shorter than she was, dark-haired and good-looking, and Clotilde paused to admire him. He was ambitious, but she didn't hold that against him— indeed, when they married, her father had said he would buy him a practice as a wedding present, and Bruce had accepted without demur. Deep inside her she had been a little unhappy about that; foolishly so, she had told herself, for it was important to him to be successful. Sir Oswald had already hinted that he might be given a senior appointment at the hospital, and that, combined with a partnership in some well established practice, would be a splendid start.
She waited quietly until the two men had finished talking, and when Sir Oswald had been ushered out of the doors to his waiting car, she nipped down the last of the stairs. 'And what was all that about?' she wanted to know, and was a little taken aback by Bruce's quick frown.
'Nothing much, just general chat.' The frown had gone and he smiled at her. 'Had a good morning? Old Thackery's round, wasn't it?'
Clotilde nodded. 'He's an easy man to work for. He's got a new house doctor—Mary Evans—she's Welsh and head over heels already. You'd think he'd notice, but he really doesn't. I daresay he's got a girl somewhere or other and that makes him immune…'
Bruce said rather impatiently: 'Must we waste time talking about him?' And then: 'Has he ever made a pass at you, Tilly?'
She gave him a look of utter astonishment. 'Heavens above, no! What an idea. Whatever made you think of that?'
He shrugged his shoulders. 'Well, you're a pretty girl…'
She dimpled at him. 'Why, thank you, Bruce.' She smiled, her lovely eyes on a level with his, and at that moment Dr Thackery sauntered out of a passage and into the entrance. He passed them with a placid greeting and went through the glass double doors, and they both turned their heads to watch him.
'Lucky devil,' observed Bruce, 'driving a Bentley—he must be making a packet.'
Clotilde, watching Dr Thackery driving away with the minimum of fuss, said thoughtfully: 'Possibly he is, but he works hard and he's so nice to his patients.'
Bruce said sourly: 'He can afford to be; I expect his waiting room in Harley Street is packed with rich old ladies.'
Clotilde said bracingly: 'Well, my dear, probably in ten years' time you'll be doing exactly as he is doing now.' She sighed soundlessly, for Bruce did harp rather too much on the financial success of his future and not enough on the satisfaction of being a good surgeon. After all, he would be able to earn quite enough to keep them in comfort, and she didn't expect more. Her father, a retired Army man, had always had enough; they had lived in the nice old house in Essex, she and her parents and her elder sister, married now and living in Canada, and she went home regularly to Wendens Ambo, sometimes with Bruce, sometimes alone, although she was going to miss that for a while, as they had left only a week ago to drive to Switzerland. Standing there watching the faint discontent on Bruce's face, she thought she might go home for her days off, just to make sure that everything was all right. And if Bruce could come with her, so much the better; it might serve to remind him that he wasn't marrying a girl without expectations. After all, her father had made them the handsome offer of a partnership, and surely after the first stepping stone, Bruce would shoot ahead.
'I must go,' she said. Are we doing anything this evening? I'm off at five o'clock.'
'I'm free around six—we'll have a drink somewhere, shall we? I'm on call for the next two nights.'
'I'll have days off—I'll go home, I think and see if Rosie's all right.' Rosie was elderly and had been with her parents ever since she could remember. 'Mother and Father don't expect to be back for another two weeks.'
They parted quickly and Clotilde, already very late, hurried back to the dining room, where she joined her friends at the table set aside for sisters and ate the shepherd's pie put before her while discussing the morning's work.
'What did you do to upset our James Thackery?' asked Fiona Walters, sister on Men's Medical. 'Very terse this morning, in a placid way. Though I daresay it's that new house doctor mooning over him.'
'She'll get over it,' observed Clotilde comfortably 'they all do in time, after all, he never encourages them.' 'Men don't like to be chased', declared a small dark girl at the end of the table. Mary Evans was the acknowledged chaser in St Alma's and the table erupted in laughter.
Clotilde went home two days later. She hadn't seen Bruce since their few hours together in the evening, but she hadn't expected to. He had no time to himself when he was on call; it was a state of affairs to which she had become accustomed. She drove herself, leaving early in the morning. The sky was dull and grey and it wasn't quite light, because there was a touch of winter about October already, but the traffic wasn't too heavy and she pushed the Mini ahead, making for the A11. Once clear of the city traffic and with Epping behind her, she sent the little car along at a good speed. She would be home in time for coffee for the journey was less than fifty miles. She and Rosie would sit at the kitchen table and gossip, then while her lunch was cooking she would take Tinker, the old retriever, for a walk. There had been a card from her mother the previous evening. Clotilde smiled, thinking of the ecstatic remarks about the Swiss Lakes, and the wonderful time they were having. She would have to see that she had days off when they got home so that she could be there with Rosie to welcome them.
She was through Bishop's Stortford by now, nearing the turning to Wendens Ambo. Saffron Walden was only two miles further on; perhaps she would go there tomorrow and have a look for a dress, something pretty for the occasional evening out she spent with Bruce.
The village, even under a grey sky, looked charming. Most of the cottages were whitewashed and thatched, their small gardens full of chrysanthemums and last snapdragons and roses. Clotilde turned off the lane to the church and went slowly along an even narrower lane and then through an open gateway, to stop before a fair-sized house, whitewashed too but with a lovely tiled roof and a handful of out-buildings. She got out of the car, to be greeted by a delighted Tinker and then by Rosie, throwing open the door, already talking. Coffee wouldn't be a minute, and what a lovely surprise, and had Clotilde heard from her mother and father?
'I had a card this morning,' Rosie declared, leading the way indoors. 'Having a lovely time, by all accounts, but it'll be nice to have them back. You'll stay the night?'
'Two,' said Clotilde contentedly. 'I'm not on until one o'clock, so I can go up in the morning after breakfast. Rosie, its lovely to be home, and I'm famished!'